Nearly forty, going on four: why there’s no age limit on the benefits of play

It was Saturday and we were trying to be efficient. Market, check. Groceries, check. Pharmacy, check. It’s as if I was trying to block out the colour of the sea, the sunny winter day, or the beautiful oranges, soft dried figs and tasty olives I’d just picked from our local produce market. Lorenzo had slept badly the night before, and Nacho and I were longing to be at home and chat, read, and simply be in silence while Lorenzo took his daily afternoon nap. This requires a complicated calculation, but I knew I had to be quick so that we could maximise the nap time at home. I entered the stationery store in a rush, while the boys waited for me outside. I pulled out my list on my phone and went about the store like a proper grown-up. Glue, check. Pen, check. Canvas… But then something stopped me.

Tucked in around the corner behind the stiff lines of grey and brown canvas, the watercolours started calling me, their bright colours and fancy names whispering in my ear. “Irene, Irene, why don’t you play with us?” Then I saw the glitter, sparkling in another corner, and the infinite number of brushes to watercolour and pencils to sketch. The bright crayons saw me from their shelf and joined the chorus, promising even more fun. It was as if I had turned into a first-year Hogwarts student trying to get all my drab school supplies in Diagon Alley but becoming enchanted with strange silver instruments I had never seen before. The stationery store had become this portal towards a dreamy land where infinite fun can be had, and joy attained.

I’m not kidding you. I was giddy with excitement as I picked out different-sized canvases, some stickers, and some watercolours. I walked to the counter to pay and my silly grin must have inspired something in the shop attendant because he smiled at me and asked whether I was after anything else. Or that’s what I thought, because I don’t actually speak Greek. But out of the blue, I blurted this out: “I would love some chalks too, please, to draw outside.” I said this and apologised for speaking English only. Another smile showed me it was OK. The chalks came. I walked out of the shop, and almost skipped across the square to get to our van

Was I thinking of my son when I bought these things? Sure, one canvas can be for him, and maybe I can share the chalks. I’ve seen so many images of children using chalk on sidewalks during the pandemic that buying them seemed natural, and great for his development. But the excitement came from somewhere deep inside, from my own inner child. Colours! Art! Paint! Fun! Messy hands!!

The following day I was tired and a little moody. I could feel that I was going to snap at Lorenzo at any time. I remembered my chalks that I had hidden away in a drawer in my office. I picked out a light pink one, snapped it in two, gave a piece to Lorenzo and kept the other half for myself. And off we went, hand in hand, holding onto our chalks, to draw on the veranda. (Yes, after spending our first lockdown stuck in my parents’ apartment in Naples, with Lorenzo not being able to set his feet outside for over two months, we prepared for this lockdown by finding a house with a veranda, a garden, and a lot of green space around us, close to the sea.) As we stepped outside, Lorenzo went straight for the walls (hurrah for chalks that can be washed off!), while I drew on the floor. The ceramic tile pattern that feels so Mediterranean inspired me to create an improved hopscotch. Did I ever even play hopscotch as a girl, or is it something I only saw in movies? I ask myself now. In fact, I couldn’t even recall how to say it in Italian (gioco della campana, bell game, it came back to me later). There I was, jumping from one square to another, yelling numbers out loud, with Lorenzo goofing around with me, laughing with excitement. For a few minutes, my crappy mood was gone. It reemerged briefly after a sudden outburst with Nacho over something I don’t even remember. Defeated, feeling that no joy could keep my internal demons away, I went back to the chalks, and tried to draw a crocodile while Lorenzo sketched wonky lines all over the place. I failed with my crocodile and gave up. As I moved on to outlining a cat’s whiskers on a circle I had drawn, there it was, an image came to mind. A skipping rope. That’s what I craved. I’d never had one, but now I knew I wanted one for sure. Two days later, here it is, a skipping rope is lying on the floor by my desk, asking me to stop writing and go play. And who knows what will come next? It seems that with every minute of play I allow myself, new possibilities crop up. Thankfully, I can tell my internal, grown-up, moody censor that I’m doing research on play, and that experiencing its benefits first-hand is a good way to start.

I told you last week that I was an opinionated, somewhat chubby girl. In my family, affairs of the brain were given a much higher priority compared to the body’s. What ensued was a feeling that I could not skip a rope because I was smart but chubby, and I should not try unless I wanted to make a fool of myself. But this time I let the skipping rope, and the body, win the battle. I walked out onto the veranda, looking at the sea down below, and started skipping. I can now report that it’s hard work, and it’s a good challenge too. In fact, it’s the right balance between ease and effort. As I skipped, I was working out both my body and my brain (so much eye/arms/legs coordination is needed!!), but all of it was happening with ease, because I was having a lot of fun. One more thing happened. Just as with the chalks, while I was skipping, another image came to my head: a hula hoop! Wouldn’t it be incredibly fun if I spent 2021 learning how to skip a rope and hula hoop? Well, I think that it’s an appropriate way to celebrate the passage into my fifth decade of life.

What about you? Do you play? Is it competitive play, physical, do you do it spontaneously or do you have to force it? Do you notice how it affects your mental health? As I continue my exploration of play, which started months ago with this piece on how important it is for us to play as we grow up, I will be very intentional about integrating more play into my adult life, and I would love to hear whether you do too. You can share your experience with me here … on my brand new website! We’ve just launched it, and you can now add your comments below this article, if you’re a paying member.

The First 1,000 Days is now a website!

Why a website? I’m trying to create a space where paying members can chat to each other, and learn from each other’s expertise and experience, in a safe, cozy environment, away from the noise of social networks. I will also invite guest experts on specific subjects onto the site so that we can push our conversations a little further and hear straight from the people engaged in cutting edge research.

If you’re already a paying member, then you just need to log in and you can leave your first messages. If you’re still deciding whether you want to pay, here is a reminder of what you get with your subscription:

  • A weekly newsletter from me (if you’re not a paying member, starting next week you’ll only get an excerpt)
  • Access to the comment section and to Q&As with invited experts
  • Access to the full archives of my writing on the first 1,000 days
  • Founding members get access to a monthly Zoom call with me

Please send me feedback! It’s still a work in progress and your comments will be crucial for its development.

Why isn’t this website free for all? Writing my weekly newsletter and curating the website costs time, money and effort. This website’s costs are covered by you, the members who choose to support my writing. But remember: if you can’t afford to pay but are committed to this project and would like to participate more actively, please drop me a line and let’s have a chat. I don’t want my writing to be available only for those who can afford the luxury.

Why do I compare this newsletter to a family? Think about it as the extended family you created for yourself growing up, not as your family of origin. I wrote about it before, there’s a big difference between the two. Now, this newsletter is like a family because we are like-minded people with a similar outlook on life, even if we come from different backgrounds, live all over the world, and may not even have children in our lives. Let me give you an example. Last week I had the first monthly calls with founding members of The First 1,000 Days, and it was such a pleasure to connect to Christine, Bonnie, Amanda, Rohit and Nabeelah, and to share our childhood memories. Because that’s something that we all have in common: we were all children once, and joining this newsletter we get to reflect on how our childhoods made us into the adults we are now.

What I’ve been reading

Lena Dunham’s essay in Harper magazine must be a tough read for those having problems conceiving. In her usual direct style, the US writer and director who rose to fame with her series Girls talks about her journey of wanting to become a mother and realising she can’t. She has some harsh words for women undergoing IVF, saying that “fertility is not a right, it’s a privilege“. While there are very positive aspects of a celebrity like Dunham, 34, speaking up about such intimate issues (she speaks about her endometriosis, and that’s also very valuable), her essay seems raw, angry and disparaging of the infertility community, as writes Kristyn Hodgdon, founder of The Fertility Tribe community, in this response. But maybe that’s the point: how can you not feel somewhat cheated of life when you find out so young, as Dunham did, that you can’t have a child, even if you want to?

What I’ve been listening to

Norwegian songwriter Ane Brun’s Leave Me Breathless live album was suggested to me during a dark time. It’s a covers album, and “strangely beautiful” as my caring friend said. I find its beauty comes in redefining tunes you’ve known a long time, and in turning something familiar into something completely new.

What I’ve been watching

This 5-minute video explainer offers a good summary of a carer’s priorities going well beyond covering basic needs. It also offers a reminder of how hard caring can be, and how important it is for carers to find support, if they can. “Be kind to your child, but don’t forget to be kind to yourself too!“ goes the video. And another one of my favourite tips: acknowledge your mistakes with your child and try to learn from them for the future.

Who’s been inspiring me

I discovered Roxani Krystalli’s brilliant Instagram feed through Sarah Menkedick’s newsletter. Finding Roxani is one of those serendipitous happenings that I like to celebrate. Roxani is a Greek lecturing about feminism in Scotland, at the University of St Andrews, where I studied, and I discovered her just as I decided to settle down in Greece. But countries don’t explain the deeper inspiration and connection I feel. In her posts, Roxani shares great books, many of which are in translation. Her tips are always inspiring and surprising. Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs is the latest suggestion of hers that is inspiring me right now.

What I’m missing out on and would love your help with

I would love to hear about play research from other countries which are totally underrepresented in our neck of the woods. I’ve just interviewed Christine Lee, a play activist in Taiwan, and you’ll hear more about her soon. Do share more names and tips from beyond the US and Europe, please! You can do so by going to my website, logging in, scrolling to the bottom of this story and filling in the box at the bottom that says “leave a reply”. 

Until next Wednesday!

Irene

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

8 thoughts on “Nearly forty, going on four: why there’s no age limit on the benefits of play

  1. I recognise your eagerness to buy all those nice colourful artmaterials! I work in Vocational Education, (training young people to work in childcare) and one of the subjects I teach is art. Every year I browse the artsupply catalogues and become greedy! And every year I try to convince the young women and (usually one) man I teach, that finding your inner child is the key to succesfully mentoring children.
    During the art classes I play along. That’s contagious, is my experience…
    Mirror neurons doing their work, just like they do when an young child is imitating their parent, or children of an older age.

    1. Ha, Muriel, I love your job! It’s so interesting because I kept hearing from play advocates how important it was for parents to reconnect to their childhood to remember why play was so important. I did so, intellectually, going down memory lane, and that worked, a little bit. But what I experienced in the stationary store, and then playing, really brought the memories and the experience into life in a much more real way. So, yes: for educators, parents and anyone else, I can’t recommend it more!
      I’ll keep you posted on my hula hoops adventure, and please share some of your top favourites when it comes to art supplies, I can do with some inspiration!

  2. My „play-dream“ for my kid is to create a music corner in the living room. I have got my collection of guitars, a djembe and a flute, but I still want a cajon, piano and a cello (and more once I manage to get those). Why? Probably for the same reason as you Irene, I want to learn how to play these instruments:) … and ideally play with my kid. When I play guitar to her she starts to laugh (for a 3 month old I take that as a compliment;) ) and sometimes starts to make kind of a cat-like jodleing sound. I interpret that as: I am wanna join in!

    Anyway, art: great way to spend time, challenge yourself and be creative:)

  3. I loved this post. My son now has a son of his own (7 mo), but I could relate to the change that overcomes when you turn to play rather than work in those moments when your child is getting on your last nerve. It definitely reset my mood on multiple occasions when he was growing up and I was trying to work and go to school. Now that my own children are grown and have their own homes I’ve returned to re-explore some of the things I did as a young girl with a freedom I’d forgotten. It sounds stereotypical – knitting, crochet, weaving, sewing. But I’m now approaching it as play and learning for the joy of it. Your description of the paints and the chalk and all the other art supplies is me in a local yarn shop, or even more in a weaver’s shop or studio. As adults we forget that play is so critical to self-care. It’s not just about soaking baths, exercise, reading, etc. Whether it’s musical, graphic, fiber, or other medium, the act of creating something that wasn’t there before just to see what happens can be so freeing if we let it. For children we allow this as a way of learning how to be in the world, but we should be allowing it for ourselves as well.

    And good luck with the Hula Hoop!

    1. Deanna!
      I will definitely report back on how my hula hoop skills develop. But I must confess that I’m also drawn quite a lot towards knitting. So we shall see how that goes!
      But you are right: we allow play as a form of learning, but then we think it’s silly later on in life. Yesterday I read something that Julia Cameron says, and I loved it, here it comes: “Silly is a defense our Wet Blanket adult uses to squelch our artist child. Beware of silly as a word you toss at yourself. (…) Creativity lives in paradox: serious art is born from serious play.”
      I’m very committed to taking play more seriously!

  4. Irene, it was a great pleasure chatting with you the very like-minded person in the other side of the global sphere. Best feeling of the all that I know the group of us mom activists in Taiwan aren’t alone at all because you people are there endeavouring to do similar things as well.

    To be so frank, I gain strength from you people every time I had a chat or a meetup or a comment from you. I’ll be and am already a big fan reader of the First 1000 Days and will spread the positiveness of this to my friends and communities.

    Best, Christinne

    1. Dear Christine,
      Thank you so much for your amazing work in Taiwan.
      I am excited to be writing up more about the work you do and to connecting with other play activists around the world too.
      For now, thanks for being a part of this community, and I look forward to our exchanges.
      Oh, and happy lunar new year!
      Irene

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